The creative arts are an avenue to tap into
the nonverbal, emotional place in a person. When
[patients are] given paint, markers, any kind of media for
art-making, and their hands are involved,
and their muscles are involved, things are tapped
in them that are genuine and active and alive,
so the creative arts bypass the limitations
and they simply go to the strengths.
People still have imaginations intact, all the way
to the very, very end of their progressive disease.
~ Judy Holstein, CJE,
Director, Chicago Senior Life Day Center
Director, Chicago Senior Life Day Center
Research is showing increasingly that ongoing participation in the creative (and especially visual) arts — drawing, painting, and dancing, in addition to weekly visits to art museums — can help enrich the lives of persons with dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or other severe memory problems, allowing them continued meaningful interaction with caregivers and family members.
One real-life example of art's power to transform is found in the story of Hilda Gorenstein, who called herself "Hilgos" and enjoyed a 75-year-long artistic career with international recognition. Hilgos suffered in late life with profound memory loss and had been placed in a nursing home, where, her daughter Berna Huebner says in interviews, she became apathetic, withdrawn, and agitated. Huebner, trying to make and sustain a connection, relates how one day she asked her mother if she wanted to paint. Hilgos replied, "Yes, I remember better when I paint." So Huebner recruited art students to visit Hilgos and after some time both physical and mental changes in Hilgos became obvious. By the time she died at age 93, Hilgos had completed several hundred paintings that showed off her still-sharp eye for color and her understanding of composition and expression, as seen in the image below. Her daughter notes that Hilgos also titled, signed, and dated her late work.
Hilda Gorenstein a.k.a. Hilgos, Sailing, watercolor
Hilgos was a student at the famed Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in the 1920s, and it was with AIC students that she began painting again after her Alzheimer's diagnosis. Her relationship with the students and the huge output that connection fostered in the last years of Hilgos' life became the impetus for her daughter's advocacy of art therapy for people with dementia and both the creation of the Hilgos Foundation in Highland Park and the establishment of the Hilgos Award. The award provides funding for students of the School of the Art Institute to design and engage in artistic projects with the elderly.
Anecdotal evidence of the benefits of the foundation's innovative intergenerational project has spurred medical interest in the Hilgos story (and others'), which has led most recently to the filming of a documentary, I Remember Better When I Paint, the trailer for which appears below. The film includes Hilgos' story, other examples of how the arts seem to help improve the quality of life of persons with Alzheimer's, and interviews with neurologists seeking to understand the science behind what happens through exposure to the arts. Narrated by Olivia de Havilland, the documentary was made by French filmmaker Eric Ellena and Hilgos' daughter Berna Huebner.
DVD of I Remember Better When I Paint
Interview with Berna Huebner (This conversation is well worth the 20 minutes it takes to listen.)
Interview with Filmmaker Eric Ellena
Late-Life Paintings by Hilgos (Prints of Hilgos' signed and dated paintings and copies of her sculpture are available for purchase through The Hilgos Foundation, 406 Woodland Road, Highland Park, Illinois 60035; 847-432-5476; firstname.lastname@example.org. The foundation also accepts donations.)
Obituary for Hilda Gorenstein, Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1998
Work of Recent Recipients of the Hilgos Award
Alzheimer's Foundation of America
Alzheimer's Reading Room
Boston University Alzheimer's Disease Center
Museum of Modern Art Project, Meet Me: Making Art Accessible to People with Dementia
Mark Morris Dance Group, Dance for PD℠ (Collaboration with MMDG and Brooklyn Parkinson Group)
National Center for Creative Aging
Puzzles to Remember
Articles: "When Boomers Get Dementia", The New York Times, June 2, 2010, and "Art Therapy for Alzheimer's", The Huffington Post, July 26, 2010
Ruth Abraham, When Words Have Lost Their Meaning: Alzheimer's Patients Communicate Through Art (Praeger Publishers, November 2004)
Cathy Malchiodi, Art Therapy Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill, August 2006)
Ellen Jantzen, "Patricia - Vanishing Mother"
Also see: "Introduction to Poetry the Film", Writing Without Paper, June 10, 2010; "Taking Everything But Love", Guest Post at Writing Without Paper, January 13, 2010.